Volume 89, #2 • Spring 2016




Ethnographic Inquiry in the ‘Digitized’ Fields of Madre de Dios, Peru and Oaxaca, Mexico: Methodological and Ethical Issues

Gordon L. Ulmer, The Ohio State University
Jeffrey H. Cohen, The Ohio State University

ABSTRACT—Instant messaging and video teleconferencing over social media are common 21st century ethnographic practices that crisscross physical and digital spaces. While this multimodal approach to fieldwork has increasingly become the norm in anthropology and other related disciplines, there is little discussion of the dynamism between various computer/smart phone-mediated forms of inquiry and how digital and face-to-face ‘classical’ ethnographic methods influence fieldwork practices. We use this paper to address three questions that remain unanswered in the conduct of ethnography that traverses both digital and physical spaces: 1) How does online ethnographic inquiry influence the relationship between researcher and research participant in both online and offline field settings? 2) How do ethnographers address methodological issues such as third-party-present effect, language competency, and challenges of “netspeak” in native languages, and temporality issues involving synchronous, asynchronous, and syncopated communication? 3) What are the ethical ramifications of using digital platforms for ethnographic queries, especially with regards to privacy issues spurred by growing state surveillance and the commodification of personal data by private entities? We address these questions using experiences in two different time periods and unique research settings, Ulmer’s recent fieldwork with conservation workers in the Amazonian region of Madre de Dios, Peru and Cohen’s work in the late 1990s and early 2000s with craft producers in central Oaxaca, Mexico. [Keywords: Digital ethnography, online communication, research methods, ethics, security]


Volume 89, #2

Spring 2016